Never piss off a Ninja, in a split-second he could flip out and murder the whole town. He could kill you so stealthily, that you wouldn't even know you were dead. With this in mind, it is better to only associate yourself with the shadow warrior (that's another name for a ninja by the way) through the medium of a video game. Those guys at Nintendo knew this when the original Ninja Gaiden game was released, to critical acclaim, on the NES system back in 1989. A couple of sequels followed and the series became firmly ingrained within the echelons of ninja gaming history.
Now the Team Ninja development studio, on behalf of Tecmo and with the creative vision of Tomonobu Itagaki, has produced a much-hyped addition to the series for the Xbox. Of course, I shouldn't have to tell you good peoples about Team Ninja. Having already released Dead Or Alive 3 and then DOA: Beach Volleyball, their rep grows bigger. They have a trademark look to their games, with reliably jaw-dropping and toe-curling animation. In fact, I'm secretly praying their next game will be a remake of Leisure Suit Larry.
So upon carefully placing the holy Ninja Gaiden DVD into my Xbox, I sat back and allowed a thousand and one past ninja cultural references to fly through my head. As it loaded up and I selected 'new game', I recalled flicking through martial arts magazines as a kid and wishing I had the money to buy a ninja suit with 800 secret pockets. But hey, maybe it is not too late to buy a ninja outfit, right? But I digress...
When playing Ninja Gaiden, it soon becomes apparent that the quality of the visuals surpasses the earlier efforts from Team Ninja. The early CGI cut-scene sets the scene and describes how the player, Ryu Hayabusa, must seek revenge by wielding the great 'dark dragon' blade. It is the usual tale of burned villages and murderous demons and really doesn't serve much purpose, other than to reward the player with progressively more impressive cut-scenes to dribble over. The CGI really is something to behold, with splendid fire effects, hair animation and impressive use of reflections.
The first couple of environments are straight out of rural, feudal Japan and assert that familiar feeling of ninja genre authenticity. It reminded me of the art style seen in contemporary titles like Tenchu, Shinobi and The Way of The Samurai. If you stop and look around during a pause in the action, you can see Mount Fuji in the distance and spot the occasional wildlife gliding past. This still atmosphere contrasts splendidly with the hectic fighting, which all moves at a fine and smooth frame-rate of 60fps.
As you progress through the game, the authentic Japanese village approach goes out the window. Before you traditionalists turn away in disgust, let me convince you that this is actually a very good thing indeed! The variation to each environment brings with it the freedom for expansive level design. In total there are 16 Chapters to the game and each ends up being surprisingly varied and large for what initially seems to be a standard slash-em-up romp. Each new environment brings the same game play mechanics but throws a new range of enemies at you, from Special Forces soldiers & cyborgs to demons and giant worms. The third chapter, for example, moves the player up and away onto a Hindenburg style airship. Here, as you will find in later levels, there is also an emphasis on exploration, platform acrobatics and puzzle solving. Although actually, it is rather unfortunate to mention the Hindenburg disaster, seeing as this airship also goes down in flames once you have completed the level.
Ahem, however, this innovative approach paves the way for a rich variety of enemies in each chapter and some of the largest and most aggressive bosses you are ever likely to meet. All contain rather sophisticated attack patterns and will keep even the most hardened game veterans on their ninja toes. In fact, I can bravely say without shame that I failed to defeat any of the bosses first time.
"The corpse of another fallen ninja. What were his last thoughts as he slipped off into the darkness?"
The responsive game play and intricate control system is what makes this a really, quite superb game. There are two basic sword attacks (Y & X), which differ in power. Holding down (Y) will issue you with a fantastically powerful special attack, which builds into combinations depending upon how many enemies you have recently dispatched. It is a nice system and one that is difficult to abuse due to the time it takes to charge. You also get to use projectile attacks too, starting off with the Shuriken and then progressing onto other weapons like a trusty bow and arrow.
Along with the basic attacks, which you are taught in the rather 'Game Of Death' inspired opening level; you also have a number of evasive maneuvers at your disposal. As is the current trend for platform-action games, you can run along walls to expeditiously avoid enemy attacks. This is particularly satisfying when you hit (X) a couple of times while in mid-air and dematerialise, confusing your foe and reappearing a short distance away.
Taking on multiple attackers has never felt so good. Whirling like a tornado and vanishing between four or five soldiers, slashing their throats before they can turn around and hit you is really impressive indeed. Although it is not quite up to the over-the-top standard of Shogun Assassin, there is also a generous quantity of gore in this game, too.
The learning curve is well balanced and it is not difficult to grasp the increasingly complex technique combinations (such as the 'gleaming cross' and 'fiends bane kick'), which are presented in each new chapter. However, this does not stop it from being one hell of a tricky game to complete. While you begin with a standard sword, you have the option of switching weapons depending upon what you find lying around in each level. For some bosses you have to use a specific weapon and this adds to the surprising depth of what is more than just a frantic arcade experience. However, upon ransacking the corpse of a deceased ninja and discovering a set of nunchukas, I rather stupidly tended to use them for everything!
You can alter or upgrade your armoury at the blacksmiths shop, as well as investing in other vital power-up items such as the life-restoring Elixir of Spiritual Life or Art Of The Fire Wheels. In fact, I'd better mention that the power-ups and Ninpo magic items are absolutely essential when trying to get through this game. Without them, chances are you will encounter the frustrating habit of continually dying and having to restart the level from scratch!
With the constant threat of battle in the air and the detailed visuals to distract you, chances are you will not pay undue attention to the music in the game. The sound effects are decent enough and befitting of a ninja game, the music being satisfactory; if nothing special. The main function is to alert the player to any newly appeared enemy, which is pretty essential when considering the occasional inadequacy of the camera system. Aha.. of course, an otherwise excellent game has to have some drawbacks right? Well, when considering other titles out there in the shops, there is really very little wrong with Ninja Gaiden. However, as I am obliged to complain about something in this game then the camera system is the most obvious target. To start things off, the player has a choice of hitting the second stick to switch to first-person mode or hitting the shoulder button in order to switch to a view immediately behind the player. Really, this is a bit fiddly at times and none more so than when the player is inside a building. Here the view usually switches to a fixed camera, reminiscent of the Resident Evil series. It means you will find yourself anxiously adjusting the camera while in the heat of battle.
There are other areas of potential improvement in this game, too, which may bode well for a sequel. Many of the levels are pretty large and the player will often find him/herself wandering through rooms and streets that are empty and seemingly underused (thank heavens you get a map with each chapter). Some of the indoor battles could have benefited from destructible scenery here and there, as well, which is always a nice and complimentary addition to any fighting game.
Indeed, the plot could have been much, much better and they could have used any number of seminal ninja films from the 1980's for inspiration. I expect them to at least sit down and watch Ninja Vs Terminator (starring Jaguar Wong) before they start work on the sequel. Check your inbox Mr Tomonobu Itagaki..
For a ninja game, it is also quite devoid of any stealth based game play mechanics. Maybe this is a good thing, seeing as any stealth game these days just doesn't seem to be able to match either Splinter Cell or the Metal Gear Solid series. However, this also means the graphics engine doesn't really bother with any sophisticated or dynamic shadow/lighting effects. No doubt sacrificed in favour of a fast frame-rate and the avoidance of slowdown, on this occasion.
There is also a slightly "bolted-on" online play aspect to this game. Unfortunately I have not had the opportunity to try it out but I gather it allows for downloadable content, including new items and weapons. An online multiplayer element sure would be interesting.
Overall, I must rearticulate that Team Ninja have done a good job here. As is fast becoming a characteristic of their development studio, Ninja Gaiden is a very polished and accomplished title. Aside from the clichéd plot, dodgy camera, the strangely unresponsive swimming sections and the occasional bug (such as when hitting X opens a dialogue box instead of wielding an attack), it is a game that comes highly recommended.
Sure, it won't suit everyone and some people will walk away because the difficulty is set so high. It also takes over 20 hours to finish! However, if you consider yourself a true gamer (as well as a closet ninja) and enjoy a challenge then you will do well to track down a copy with Godspeed.
Sam's take on Ninja Gaiden:
Ninja's never really seemed to recover from their over exposure in the eighties cultural zeitgeist, but in Ninja Gaiden we have a perfect example of why they should be forgiven and welcomed back with eager arms to the gaming fraternity. To use a term common in our times: NG is rather good. The merging of a beat-em-up with a 3D adventure game is inspired and handled with great skill by the developers. And while the myriad of special combos may be too bewildering in their number and scope, you only need to learn a few to leap and slash your way through to the end.
And that's a journey that will take some time. My biggest criticism of NG is the placement of the save points, especially before bosses. If you take 10-15 attempts to kill a boss, and the trip from the last save to the encounter takes at least a minute of wandering, loading and cut-scene then you can literally waste hours of your life by the time the end credits role. There are one or two other minor issues with the game, but if this saving situation was rectified then NG would rank as one of the most compete and well thought out games ever to grace the Xbox. The fights are spectacular, varied and immensely fun. The cut-scenes are tremendous and rival those of Blizzard, the inventory is a breeze to work and the controls are as responsive as a wino to free booze. It looks better then this year's Glastonbury line-up and sounds pretty damn tasty too. And it is amazing value for money, with the first run through guaranteed to last at least twenty hours, with two more difficulty levels to work through after that, and the lure of finding all the scarabs to unlock each of the original three ninja Gaiden games.